Throughout the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying cycle, ussoccer.com will be documenting the developing competition between the U.S. Men’s National Team’s goalkeeper pool. Before diving into this one, read the first and second installments of the series.
Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson were supposed to be the next wave in the long lineage of successful U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeepers. The young duo burst on the M.L.S. scene at roughly the same time and received their professional debuts within months of each other – Hamid with D.C. United and Johnson with Chicago Fire -- during their first full seasons in 2010.
Both made their way into U.S. MNT camp within a year of their club debuts and pushed each other as the top two goalkeepers in the U-23 MNT’s cycle leading to the 2012 Summer Olympics. Though the U.S. missed out on going to London, the pair remained in the conversation for the side’s third goalkeeper spot as the USA qualified for 2014 FIFA World Cup.
“It’s challenging to deal with the fact that only one goalkeeper can play, especially in a National Team environment,” Hamid said. “It’s one where every goalkeeper is a starter at his club and you have to just take it on board. If your name isn’t called, you have to keep going, keep performing in training and believe in yourself, your strengths, believe that you can get the job done if your name is called upon.”
In the end, the newer generation of U.S. goalkeepers would have to wait, instead playing de facto alternates to third-choice veteran back stop Nick Rimando on the team that went to Brazil. And while it seemed like Hamid and Johnson were on the cusp of playing a big role in the next cycle – sometimes because of injury, sometimes because of form -- the pair have instead been called quite sparingly since. This summer, things aligned for the duo to be back in camp together, competing and supporting each other as two of the three U.S. goalkeepers summoned for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Group Stage.
“Things are going pretty well this season with D.C. United,” Hamid told ussoccer.com about his eighth season with the club. “Individually I’ve tried my best to perform at a high level, week in and week out with [goalkeeping coach] Zach Thornton and [head coach] Ben Olsen. “I feel like I’ve been in a good run of form and I’ve stepped into that leadership role for our organization. With the performances, I’ve been fortunate enough to get the call back into the National Team. It feels good right and I just want to keep it going.”
For Hamid, the Gold Cup summons was a nice reprieve after having to pull out of the U.S. MNT’s January Camp just days before due to a recurring knee injury which required surgery.
“January was a big opportunity for a lot of players to come in under a new coaching staff and a new direction to prove themselves,” Hamid added. “The injury was just horrible timing. I was prepared and ready to fight for a spot on the team and it just wasn’t my time. I had to get my knee right, I’ve been dealing with the knee injury for a year and a half. I got the surgery and now things are looking up.”
Capped five times previously by the U.S. MNT, for Johnson, the Gold Cup call-up was the first since a January Camp appearance the previous year and the summons helped continue writing a new chapter in the 28-year-old’s career. After playing seven seasons with the Chicago Fire, the Lilburn, Ga., product turned a significant page when he was dealt to New York City FC during the offseason. Though he says he will always hold Chicago in high regard, the move was a welcome one after the club went through years of subpart seasons and back-to-back last-place finishes the previous two years.
“I think the change of scenery for me was needed and it was a good one,” Johnson said of his move to the Big Apple. “Ever since being with New York City, I’ve obviously received a chance to be in an environment with good players, tremendous staff and that’s definitely helped where we are in the table and individually, it’s helped me grow as a player and helped me get back here with the National Team.”
Returning to the U.S. MNT scene allowed Johnson’s rendezvous with Hamid, with the two welcoming the reunion that began in late June.
“The competition between us is healthy and I think we’re both in a position now to press on and establish ourselves,” Johnson said about his counterpart. “The competition is good and I think we’ve grown as players. At the end of the day, there’s nothing better than to have someone to compete against and push yourselves every single day in training.”
“Sean’s a great guy. He’s got a very strong mentality and works hard,” Hamid added about Johnson. “I can appreciate his hard work. I have the same mentality, I work hard and push myself and I think you can see that in training, we’ve always pushed each other, but we also support each other. At the end of the day, the U.S. team is a team. It’s a competition, but we have to support each other. Only one of us can play and neither one of us is the decision maker.”
In the case of the Gold Cup Group Stage, like they have often, both goalkeepers sat in reserve of Brad Guzan, who started the USA’s friendly win against Ghana as well as the tournament’s opening two matches with Panama and Martinique. With the U.S. needing a three-goal victory against Nicaragua to guarantee top spot in the group, Arena elected to hand Hamid the start – his third cap and first competitive appearance for the U.S.
While the U.S. dominated throughout the match, Hamid was called into action on a few occasions and made two saves to earn the shutout as the U.S. eked out a 3-0 win late in the game.
"Hamid did very well," Arena said following the match. "Credit to Bill for the clean sheet."
Following the match, Johnson returned to New York in an arrangement his club worked out with Arena. Hamid stayed as the lone goalkeeper holdover and was joined by roster additions Tim Howard and newcomer Jesse Gonzalez for the tournament’s Knockout Rounds.
Though he backed up Howard as the U.S. went on to win its sixth CONCACAF Gold Cup title, Hamid remained galvanized by the competition and saw the extended look with the National Team as a bonus towards achieving his ultimate goal of being one of the three goalkeepers that heads to Russia should the U.S. qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
“I’m leaving no stone unturned right now to make sure that I’m a part of that 23-man roster going to the World Cup,” Hamid said. “It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of, but first off we have to qualify. That’s my passion right now, it’s everything that’s running through my veins. From training, making sure that I’m a leader in my team with D.C. United, performing at a high level, pushing my teammates to be at their best and in training here – using my voice and what I do well and working on my own weaknesses. It’s all going to take its toll, but I know for a fact that if I do what I know I can do and perform how I can perform, I’m going to be a part of that roster.”
And in doing that, Hamid will have to continue to compete and impress among a crowded goalkeeper pool. One that will continue to feature Howard and Guzan, his partner of sorts in Johnson, young up-and-comers Gonzalez and Ethan Horvath and Rimando once again.
“The competition is challenging because we all bring a different thing to the table,” Hamid said. “We all have strengths and weaknesses, but we’re all great goalkeepers. It motivates and pushes me to be my best day in and day out, whether I’m with my club or here in the picture. Just like them, I know they would say it in front of the camera, I want to be the No. 1 goalkeeper and to see them at their best pushes me to try and be at my best every day in training.”